Eva Sipola, also known as Biankonera, is a visual storyteller from Riga, Latvia. Her favorite genre is street photography, yet she is not interested in documenting reality in her images. Instead she attempts to capture fleeting illusions and city dreams hidden in reflections and in interplay of shadows and light. Venice is her ultimate muse.
When was your first trip to Venice? You’ve written that you don’t have a first memory, but there was a strong impression of “returning home.” Can you describe what that felt like?
My first trip to Venice happened exactly 20 years ago as a gift for my birthday. Upon our first encounter, there truly was no first impression, no tempting invitation to discover a new place, no attempts to charm me. Venice did none of that. She just welcomed me back as if I was a long lost child returning home. In spite of the sweltering August heat (torture for a Northerner like me, who comes from Riga, a city that is an absolute opposite of Venice in every sense imaginable) I felt that I was in a place that I somehow had always known and where I was always supposed to be. That has not changed till this day and each time Venice embraces me in a hug of delicious sea air upon my return and I know I am home.
How has your relationship to the city changed over 20 years?
Venice has become an essential part of my life. It’s a city I love infinitely. It’s the place where I go to find answers and peace of mind, to feel alive, to learn about myself. This city has showed me that dreams exist in real life, she has taught me valuable lessons, allowed me the luxury of living out ideas conjured up by my imagination. Venice is the one place where I have found my visual voice.
How did you know that photography would become your primary creative expression?
This journey began about 10 years ago during the infamous financial crisis. I had a lot of free time on my hands since there weren’t many people willing to pay for translations (my day job). I decided I would use this free time in some productive way. I had a camera lying around and I thought –– let’s learn how to use this thing, and see what happens. And here I am now, being part of this incredible project. It is truly a pinch-me moment for me.
I was greatly influenced by my dad who was an avid photographer. Also I can’t draw anything to save my life, so when I discovered that photography is essentially drawing with light it became this amazing revelation, because there was finally a way for me to express myself visually, an ability I had always wished to have.
You’ve said that although you were infatuated with photography, you weren’t in love. But all that changed when you started using a Fuji camera in 2014. How did the camera change your experience as a photographer?
Yes, that is true. I learned to photograph using a heavy DSLR camera and I liked taking photos, but it wasn’t love. The camera was bulky and loud and I had to spend a lot of time editing my pictures to make them look the way I saw them in my mind and that was getting old. Then in 2014 I bought my first mirrorless Fuji and it freed me. It showed me that I could do 90% of the work in the camera. That and the ability of Fuji cameras to capture wonderful nuances of color and light was so liberating and inspiring. This camera translates my ideas in the most precise way, leaving me to do only small tweaks in post-production.
I always think of you as a writer and a photographer because language seems to be an essential part of your story telling. When you write your stories, which are part prose and part poetry, which comes first, the written story or the photograph? The synergy between the two feels seamless.
Thank you so much for such a wonderful compliment! Languages have always been essential in my daily life both because I come from a bilingual extended family and because I earn my living doing translations. Also I’ve scribbled stories since I was in elementary school. There is this necessity in me to write that I cannot ignore. As for what comes first -– words or pictures -– there really is no method. There are many occasions when I take a shot and the caption for it just flashes up in my mind instantly. Other times I either have a story that needs an illustration or I conjure up a story inspired by the image.
When you are in Venice do you seek out places to photograph, or is your camera an appendage, always ready and willing no matter where you find yourself in the city? Is there a time of day that you prefer to photograph, or a specific season?
There are places in Venice that draw me like a magnet, however, my camera is indeed always at the ready for the moment when a photograph might cross my path no matter where I find myself in the city. I enjoy walking into a situation and reacting to it, doing my very best not to disturb it. I like the unexpectedness of serendipity, which is why I usually don’t stage shots. I believe in Jay Maisel’s advice for photographers to hit the streets empty and open, because if you’re open for photographs, they will find you. Venice is like a never ending and constantly changing flow of stories and images. Even the most deserted of places might spring a surprise on you. If you open your eyes and your senses to Venice, she will reward you with incredible shots.
My favorite season in Venice is winter. I love her in that beautiful white light when she appears like an ethereal, otherworldly vision. Another time I love is early spring when light in the city becomes a bit more yellow, but it’s still much softer than in summer. Early morning sunlight in spring is breathtaking.
Where are the places in Venice that you find yourself drawn to?
My Venetian trifecta is made up of Dorsoduro, the Piazza and the calli around La Fenice, although I love the whole city, the different vibes of each sestieri. I know many photographers who avoid the Piazza at all costs but I adore being there. My days often begin and end on the Piazza because I’m always curious to see what’s happening on that spectacular stage of life. As for Dorsoduro, it hosts many of my favorite places -– Punta della Dogana, Salute, Zattere. Oh and my absolute favorite feature of Venice are the magical portals known as sottoporteghi.
There seems to be unresolved mystery in your photography. What you leave out is as important as what you leaven in. Is this a reflection of your personality or more a characteristic of the city?
Most likely it’s both. I read a lot of fantasy books that are full of magic, so I guess that influences me as a person and the way I express myself in photography. Besides Venice is so wonderfully dramatic and complex and surreal. It speaks to me in riddles and I enjoy trying to solve them. The big picture that hits you in Venice is so disorienting in its beauty that at first you don’t notice the smaller, finer nuances that are in abundance. When you start discovering those nuances, when you start understanding the subtle hints the city gives you about itself, about yourself, about life, you find yourself in a different world, a different reality. Venice gives you shards and pools of bright light and shrouds everything else in dark shadows, leaving the story up to your imagination and curiosity. It’s the same with my photos -– I like them to be open to interpretation.
Can you tell us about your photo in the book? It is undeniably Palazzo Franchetti and yet it is submerged and hidden by leaves and the reflection. What prompted you to frame the photo this way? What would you like us to lean about the Palazzo through this photo?
I discovered Palazzo Franchetti when I went to see my second Glasstress exhibition a few years back (the first one was in my hometown Riga) and I fell in love with that building, with its gorgeous staircase and massive windows that offer a view to the Accademia Bridge on one side and onto the front courtyard on the other. My favorite features of Venetian architecture are the traceries that look like lace and give buildings so much lightness. Last year when I exited the Palazzo Franchetti, I noticed this table with a puddle on it in the courtyard where this beautiful snow-white element of the facade was reflected in all its glory and begging to be photographed. So this photo brings us back to my love for details and nuances of Venice and to my love of mystery. I want to encourage the viewer to look a bit more closely at the city to find its true treasures. And to look in unexpected places -– like puddles -– that offer a different perspective of the things you think you already know.
In the last 20 years Venice has become more fragile and less livable. How do you feel about the changes that you’ve witnessed? Do you think that the Venice that you know and love, will survive?
The changes, for the most part, sadden me. The selfish and destructive money-grabbing ways of people in charge of the city are revolting and infuriating. Driving out your own people from their city to make room for hotels and the like? That is so backwards in every sense. My hope is that there will come a day when Venice will have a mayor who loves the city, lives there, understands it’s quirks and needs, and cherishes and protects it, instead of abusing it. I hope this happens soon. Venice needs her guardian who will protect her from the onslaught of the world. This city exists in spite of everything but there might come a time when she gives up on the mindless humans who do everything in their power to destroy her due to mind-boggling arrogance. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Let’s hope that the resisting Venetians who adore their city prevail, and that many generations will get to discover the surreal, dreamlike Venice that stole my heart. That is my biggest wish.